Flying Steerage

Flying Steerage

I can still remember when flying, even in coach, was relatively comfortable. I once flew to Japan on a Korean Airlines jumbo jet. Between the amazing food, the gracious attendants and the vast seats, it was practically a religious experience. Flying was also fun!  On a flight from Alaska to South Carolina, while sitting at the very front of coach, I asked a stewardess this question: ‘If I moved forward about six feet, into first class, it would cost $5000. Why is that?’

She looked around, leaned close and said, ‘We dance naked…’

Alas, that was then. I just flew from Denver to Cincinnati for business. I trudged onto the ‘regional jet,’ which would fly me across the amber waves of grain of the Midwest, sat down, stuffed my backpack under the seat in front of me and managed to wedge my feet beside it. Between the immovable placement of my lower extremities, the width of my seat and the (admittedly) unfortunate width of my body, a seat-belt was purely superfluous. Any crash that could have dislodged me would have been, by default, unsurvivable.

Fortunately, my stewardess was devoted to my safety, and asked that I remove my empty drink bottle from my seat-pouch. You don’t even want to know what can happen when a jet airplane hits the ground at 450mph and there’s a plastic bottle in front of you! It’s horrible…almost as bad as not sitting in the upright position.

Adding to the delights of our regional jet, there was a very large man seated next to me. Now, I don’t mean obese. This man was big. For all the world, he had the appearance of a Grizzly bear, drugged, captured and stuffed into a pet carrier designed for house-cats. His eyes were wild with confinement.

Our shared condition was made worse by the inconvenient presence of our arms. There was just no place to put them. We flew with our useless upper appendages held across our chests for most of the flight, although occasionally I was able to shift my body a few degrees to the aisle to return sensation to all limbs.

We were in the back row, so our seats could not recline. The seats in front of us were so close that when my fellow-traveler lowered his tray table, it stopped at about 30 degrees from the vertical and rested squarely on his nipples, between which he might reasonably have wedged his complementary drink.

Much like men in public restrooms, our ‘intimacy’ led us to avoid eye contact. Two and a half hours later, we arrived and unfolded from our seats, but both of us would have preferred the spacious confines of, say, a freezer crate.

This wasn’t the first time I had encountered the phenomenon of ever shrinking space in ‘steerage,’ where the masses are packed like so many Kindle-reading sardines. I dropped my water bottle on another flight (on a similar aircraft) and nearly wept. There was simply no way for me to reach it without dislocating my own shoulder or sharing an uncomfortable yoga position with the lady seated next to me.

When even the skinny flight attendant admits that it’s hard for her to walk down the aisles (as ours did), the rest of us are in for nothing but misery and blood clots. Perhaps those of us who fly often might have more room if we would simply lie down in the in the overhead compartments. Or maybe airline executives should fly with the masses more often, in order to enjoy the new seating arrangements first hand.

Despite the cramped quarters, and the fact that I could barely move enough to open my microscopic bag of pretzels, I had to laugh. The experience didn’t change the fact that I enjoy air travel. It’s still a miracle and a wonder; to this day I love watching throngs of humans navigate the intricacies of the process, for work and pleasure alike. Frankly, the spectacle of the public vs TSA is almost worth the price of a ticket.

However, I must confess that for my subsequent trip I rented a car. Sure, it tripled my travel time. But it was worth it to travel in a comfy seat, with a cup-holder and proper snacks; and to feel my legs.

I’ll fly again, but don’t think I won’t have something to say about it. On the other hand, this flight went a lot more smoothly than the time I had five rounds of forgotten .38 ammo in my carry-on. But that’s a story for another day…

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